2000 Notebook

Welcome to the Future

So here we are in 2000. Civilization hasn't collapsed yet. Yea.

But what if it had? How prepared would we be as a species to live without our technology?

The sad answer is, not very. We've spent almost every moment of the last two millennia building our tower of technology higher and higher, and achieved some amazing things: humans walking on the moon, near-instantaneous global communication, and greatly increased lifespans. While these are certainly laudable accomplishments, they're worthless without the technological infrastructure that exists today. If it goes away, we're back to practically square one.

What I'm interested in is fundamental changes to humanity and society that could outlast that kind of collapse. Take for example the triumph over illness. What would last in the event of collapse? Asepsis, the knowledge of antibiotics, and various immediate treatments (e.g., for shock). These would improve life for a nontechnological society. Almost all drugs would disappear, as would X-rays, MRI, PET, CAT scans, surgery, most pathology tests, et cetera. We'd be a step or two up, but we'd lose a lot of ground.

So the question becomes "what can we create or change that will improve humanity now, and will also survive a technological collapse?". For example, is it possible to improve disease resistance, digestion, or other abilities in an inheritable way that doesn't rely on repeated treatments? Can we make beneficial changes to our species that will last?

The question applies to more than health. Consider human societies. Capitalism might be fine if you're middle class or wealthy, but it's not so great for the poor. Globally, granaries might be overflowing in some places, yet famine persists in others due to economics. Food is thrown out while people on the same street go hungry. This is fundamentally wrong, yet no effort seems to be expended to fix it. Can't the six billion minds on this planet come up with a better, enduring system to distribute food, water, shelter, medicine, and learning to everyone? Are we as a species so poor that we cannot afford a Manhattan Project of the Mind to invent these new ways? Why are we content to live in a fragile technological edifice, vulnerable to any number of disasters?

And why isn't everyone asking these questions?



I have contracted spamanoia, a condition related to paranoia. It's a strange affliction; a sufferer can no longer distinguish innocuous mail from spam.

Here's an example. I got email just an hour ago asking for research assistance on the legend of Beowulf. This perplexed me, as there is no mention of this legend on my Web site. Ah-ha, I thought to myself. This is an email address validation troll.

Here's the scenario. Someone who has a list of addresses wants to determine which ones are valid. The only way to do this is to send a message to each. Those that reply are valid; those that don't are not. The problem is that if the list owner sends an obvious message ("Is anyone home?"), the recipients will know the sender is trolling for valid addresses.

How does a list owner avoid this? As in magic, the trick is misdirection: send a message which seems innocuous, even if it has nothing to do with the recipient. The recipient might think it was misaddressed and reply. Bingo! The spammer just got you to validate another email address.

Of course, I could be wrong. The message could be completely innocent. By now, though, I've contracted spamanoia. A consequence is that I am no longer willing to give odd email the benefit of doubt. If it doesn't directly address me or my Web site, it is trashed.

Actually, it's more than trashed. I not only create a filter to block mail from its originating domain, I've started to add filters that block email from the mailer immediately upstream from it. Spamanoia has reduced my patience with junk email to zero.

The days when the Internet held nothing but promise are over.

P.S. The email didn't ask about Beowulf. I substituted a different legend so that someone searching for mention of the legend in the email won't find this site. That's spamanoia for you.


True Freedom

Is the truly free individual not the person who is constantly at loggerheads with the world, but rather one who transcends the system, freeing her to do what she wishes?


An American Choice

Sometimes I wonder about the U.S. of A. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Yet there is a sizable portion of the country's population that believes that it should be legal to post the Ten Commandments in government offices. Do these people not understand that the U.S. government is based on civil principles, not religious?

Perhaps this misunderstanding would be resolved if all U.S. citizens were given a choice: the First Amendment or the First Commandment. You can choose to uphold one or the other, but not both.

Update, 2 January 2002. This would make a good t-shirt.



Why are game show prizes always appliances and vacations, not tuition? Rather than a car, I'd like to win the opportunity to learn.


A Matter of Perspective

One of the surprising facts about ancient Athens was that it contained about fifty thousand people. The town I live in is that big. So where is our Aeschylus, our Euripides, our Sophocles? What accounts for the fact that more people from that town are known than ever will be from mine?


Because It's All About Shopping

[Netscape 4's 'Shop' button]

I have never liked the Netscape 4.x interface. It has several features that are more convenient than version 3.04, especially its bookmark management. Yet I've been willing to put up with more work managing bookmarks to avoid an interface I didn't like, even though I was never able to precisely pin down why.

Tonight I realized the reason: the "Shop" button. It's there on the toolbar, even though I never used it. I don't shop online, and don't use credit cards, so what use is it to me? Absolutely none. And I can't get rid of it, since the toolbar isn't customizable.

Considering the matter leaves me with more questions. Why a "Shop" button? The Web is more than a marketplace. Why isn't there a "Learn" button, or a "Create" button, or a "Contribute" button? Why would Netscape think they knew what I want to do on the Web -- and then compound their error by making their wrong guess a prominent and permanent feature of their program's interface? That, to me, is a perfect example of what Alan Cooper and others call programmer arrogance.

The rewritten version of Netscape (currently known as 6.0) has an interface written in XUL. I hope they give the user the ability to write their own XUL; I'll learn it just to get rid of that annoying button.


Update, 2000-04-23. A Netscape employee pointed out that it is possible to get rid of the Shop button, as well as customize Netscape's interface and behavior in many ways.

To get rid of the Shop button:

  1. Look for a file in your Netscape directory tree called config.jsc. Open it. (If you can't find this file, look for the directory that contains the file bookmark.htm (and possibly prefs.js). Create a new text file in that directory.)

  2. Add the line

  3. Save the file as config.jsc.

  4. Close Netscape if it's running. The next time it's run, the button should be gone.

A list of customizable settings is available at Netscape's developer site. Note that although the site talks about customizing prefs.js, manual customizations made to the this file will be overwritten the next time Netscape is closed. Customize config.jsc instead.

Update, 2000-04-28. I'm a bit puzzled. The Shop button wasn't introduced until a later version of Netscape 4.x than the one I decided I didn't like. Perhaps it was the fold-up (but not completely hideable) toolbar that was the problem, or the non-customizable toolbar.

Final update, 2000-05-25. Discovered that disabling Javascript also disables style sheets. Since I always disable Javascript, the main reason I installed 4.72 is obviated. The interface should reflect the dependence of style sheets on Javascript, but it doesn't. That's poor design.

Removed 4.72 from my system.


The worst job in a hospital must be delivering babies. The mere concept is repellent.

How big can the market for fresh baby liver be, anyway?



Kid's toy idea: My First PrescriptionTM. It provides a way to gently introduce children to taking medicine, and prevents the formation of pill phobia. I imagine a large, brightly colored plastic bottle that dispenses shiny candy pills. Some of the pills are sweet, a few slightly bitter. The cap is not child-proof, of course.


A May Day Question about U.S. Civics

In grade school civics class, we were taught that the United States' federal government was divided into three branches: the legislative, the judicial, and the executive. Each branch has both powers and limitations. To prevent any one branch from gaining ascendancy, there is a system of checks and balances between them. For example, the judiciary can rule that a law created by the legislature is unconstitutional. This is a judicial check on the power of the legislature. It is balanced by the legislature's control of federal finances. No branch has uncontested power over another.

A simple diagram makes it all clear.

[checks and balances between U.S. gov't branches]

What I've been wondering lately, however, is how the rest of the country fits into this. In a world where military power is held by governments, and incredible financial power is held by corporations, don't we need to incorporate the previous diagram into a new one?

[balances and checks between U.S. gov't, business, and citizens]

The balances and checks in this diagram do exist (for example, the press can check the power of both the government and business), but the diagram is an ideal that does not well reflect the actual dynamic of these institutions. Can these imbalances be improved? Is anyone thinking along these lines?


An Unwelcome Realization

As I write, this Web site has approximately 332 pages. If Sturgeon's Law is correct, only ten percent of them are worth anything. That means that only 33 pages aren't crud. Which pages are the good ones? Is this page one of them?


A Possibly Novel Scheme for Smuggling Drugs

Here's the plan.

  1. Choose a border crossing that is outdoors.
  2. Buy a car, drugs, generic balloons, a mesh net, and a tank of helium.
  3. Divide the drugs into small packets, each a few grams in weight.
  4. Securely attach the packets to the balloons.
  5. Inflate the balloons. Put the inflated balloons in the net.
  6. Open your car's trunk.
  7. This is the tricky part. Using the net, transfer the balloons to the car's trunk carefully. If a balloon breaks or a packet falls off, wash out the car's trunk thoroughly and try again. (See Rule #4: leave no evidence.)
  8. Close the trunk.
  9. Drive across the border.

If the border patrol doesn't stop you, you're home free. If they do, they might ask to search your trunk. Confidently hand them the key, sit back, and watch. They open the trunk and a bunch of balloons fly out. By the time their surprise gives way to action, the balloons will be out of reach, and any evidence will be literally scattered on the wind.

Of course, I wouldn't advocate that anyone actually do this. That would be wrong. But the idea of a border guard opening a car trunk full of balloons is just too delightful not to share.

You know what could make this even better? Instead of attaching packets of drugs to the balloons, try attaching a flash card full of cryptographic algorithms, protocols, and documents. Cryptography scattered on the wind! I like it.


Zen Buddhist GPS

When its single button is pressed, its small screen displays You are here now.


The GIF Bomb

A few days ago a Web site posted a rant about someone who was stealing not only images from their site, but bandwidth as well. The thief didn't copy the images; instead, the original URL of the images was used. So not only were the victim's images helping promote someone else's ad-supported site, but he was paying the bandwidth bill.

The victim quickly remedied the problem by replacing the images with some that were offensive. This was a decent solution, and that's the last he's written about it. But the problem got me thinking: how could one retaliate in a case like this?

Last night I hit upon a solution: making an image that's so large it would choke a viewer's browser. A quick check of the GIF specification revealed that the largest a GIF could be is 65,536 × 65,536 pixels in size. Experimentation showed the impracticality of this size; Photoshop 4.0 won't create images larger than 30k pixels on a side, and Netscape 3.04 won't even try to render images much bigger than 8k pixels on a side. But it will try to render an image 8k × 8k. On my system Netscape doesn't crash, but issues an "out of memory" error when it tries to render it. Yes! Just the kind of annoyance I was looking for. You can try it yourself; this GIF bomb is only 44kB.

Don't even think about animated images.

Don't use this idea, of course. It Would Be Wrong. But it is pleasing to consider.


A Moment of Silence

Virginia schools are about to test their law which mandates that each school day begin with a moment of silence so students can "meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity".

This law is, of course, absurd. What should be done about it? The best response to an absurd law is an absurd (but now legal) act. I suggest that those students who do not wish to meditate or pray should engage in one of the most famous of silent activities, the subtle art known as mime.

Imagine it! All over Virginia we might soon find students walking invisible dogs. Thousands of sixth graders in Newport News might find themselves trapped in glass boxes. Who knows where it could lead? Walking against the wind could become a cottage industry in Norfolk. In time, Virginia might lead a nationwide mime renaissance!

I know what you're thinking: "Do we really need more mimes in the world?". Well, I'd take a hundred thousand mimes over a weakening of the separation between church and state.


Misanthropy 101

If we're such an intelligent species, supposedly the pinnacle of evolution, then how come we haven't solved any of the most basic problems of the human race? Consider what should be the fundamental challenge for our species: feeding itself. We haven't even begun to consider solving the problem, much less do something about it. The species as a whole has invented not a single practical way to guarantee that its members do not starve. And that's with the collective thinking of over six billion people. Could it be that we as a species really aren't quite as grand as we think we are? If we were, after all, wouldn't everyone go to bed with a full stomach? Why haven't we solved even one of the basic problems our species faces?

Thinking about this question and its lack of answers is the first exercise in Misanthropy 101.


Another Round of Science vs. Religion

One of the reasons the debate between science and religion never makes any progress is that no one's created an objective test for superiority. This leads to the observation that I've never heard of anyone going to war over Archimedes' principle, or being burned at the stake because of a disagreement about the value of Planck's constant.


Last updated 2 January 2002
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons

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